Joseph Conrad

Adam Gopnik was recently on CNN with Fareed Zakaria discussing the place of the humanities in our world. It was a conversation that continues the recent debate aboutr the U.S. education system and the role of STEM. It also is a mirror to the discussion of officer education and training in the U.S. Navy, albeit somewhat inverted. While the discussion of U.S. education at large is one of too few science, technology, engineering, and math students and practitioners, in the Navy we face an officer corps where STEM educated officers are by far the majority, and according to policy will only become more dominant. But Gopnik said something that caught my attention: “We need the humanities … because we are human.”

The statement reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a Captain in the Pentagon. Following the relief of yet another Commanding Officer, for a leadership mistake that seemed obvious to us, the Captain asked how come, after 238 years of naval history, we haven’t figured this out? We all know what good leadership is, we all know not to be a toxic leader, and doesn’t it all seem so simple? It’s reminiscent of a letter Admiral Hyman Rickover wrote to the editor of Proceedings in 1981. For Rickover, the engineer’s mind could not fathom why people didn’t simply follow the procedure, put the inputs into the equation and get the guaranteed result. There was no need, he wrote, for Proceedings to ever publish another article on leadership. Good leadership was a settled matter.

The reason, of course, is that we’re talking about human beings, complete with all of our frailties, failings, and free will. One of the great truisms of military leadership is that our people are our greatest strength, or our most valuable asset. It’s repeated time and time again. Today Chief of Naval Operations Greenert tells us that “Our power comes from our folks, the attributes and their skill which they bring.” A century ago Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote that having a good Navy “consists not so much in the building of ships and guns as it does in the possession of trained men.” Is it true? I certainly think so. But if people matter, we’re not talking simply about end-strength numbers or rack space in berthing. We’re talking about humans. And because we’re talking about leading, working with, partnering with, and eventually even fighting other humans…we need the humanities.

Cultural understanding, emotional intelligence and empathy are fundamental parts of good leadership, and also a part of modern naval concepts like international partnerships. They come from experience. It is my great hope, however, that I will never have to experience all of the trials and challenges my fellow sailors face in life in order to help them. What a tragic life that could be. Instead, I’d rather read my share of Shakespeare, Hemingway, or O’Brian, which might help me learn a thing or two about emotion and about the way people face different challenges in their lives, even at sea. Reading the biographies of great leaders, the histories of battles both large and small, and the classics of strategy, helps me learn from the mistakes and successes of others rather than have to learn only from my own multitude of mistakes.

Many of you right now are thinking, sure but will it give me practical answers? No. Will it help me on my next tactics quiz or NATOPS closed book test? No. And that’s not the point. Empathy is not about perfect answers; it’s about finding a place to begin understanding each other and finding a way to connect. Without that connection, leadership is purely a matter of positional authority. Of course, only barking out orders is one of the worst ways to be a leader. The goal is leadership where, as one of Lord Admiral Nelson’s officers once said, “we all wish to do what he likes, without any kind of orders.” And if you remember that the enemy gets a vote, then the human mind will also play a role in how they formulate that decision.

Admiral Harvey was simply wrong when he told CDR Salamander and Eagle One on Midrats that “this is not a business for poets.” (Actually, his friend ADM James Stavridis, counters the idea directly since he studied English literature instead of engineering as a Midshipman.) It is true that we do need practical answers sometimes though. When running a nuclear plant, the Admiral is of course right that we need technical experts who can give the definite answer. But technical knowledge and execution are only a part of my job as an officer. (And, incidentally, something that Nuclear Power School has taught lots of historians and English majors.) If half of my job is working with other humans, why should I only study science and machines? Shouldn’t we have balanced officers, able to integrate the human and the technical? In order to have that, we must educate in a balanced way as well.

In the critical scene in Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad’s classic novel of the maritime world in the late 19th century, the Second Engineer of the tramp steamer Patna comes up to the bridge from below, long after dark as they head across the Gulf of Aden. The novel’s anti-hero Jim repeatedly checks the clock, as the final minutes of his bridge watch tick down (a moment we all know and identify with). The Engineer and the Captain, who had just come to the bridge in his pajamas, begin to argue about the role that Engineers should play at sea. Without them the ship wouldn’t even move, and they could pretty much take care of all the responsibilities aboard ship, exclaims the engineer. The Captain argues back about the importance of seamanship and command, both men likely having had a nip from the bottle. Jim, paying attention to the amusing give and take, feels the ship give a shudder. Patna struck something in the water. The officers, distracted by their argument and the sudden fear that Patna will sink, abandon ship.

I can’t help feel like the scene tells us something about the debate over officer education. We need both. We need engineers to provide technical expertise and their particular way of approaching problems and we also need a balance of line officers who have studied humans and human interaction, who have studied the humanities. We need diversity. But maybe most importantly, we need both of them to stop arguing with each other and stop maneuvering for position. Stop making official policies that benefit their tribe and take us further out of balance. Stop thinking that only they and their type is what our navy and our nation need.

It’s time to drive the ship. The issue is on the table, but instead of tribal preservation we must figure out how to bring balance back to the Navy, to educate officers and integrate the technical specialist’s skills with the strategic thinking and leadership lessons of the humanities and social sciences. Instead of piecemeal decisions and salami slicing policy, we need a holistic vision. It is time for an official and comprehensive look at the kind of naval officer we need in the 21st century, and how our system develops those officers. If we neglect our professional responsibilities the tragic victims may not be our service, but instead the passengers we abandon: the American people. It’s time to stop arguing at the back of the bridge and start looking outside. It’s time to focus on our profession. We’re headed toward a collision.

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Navy
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  • Art Corbett

    The author’s best argument is his own superior use of literature to make his point and hold the interest of the reader. Well done!

  • Well done, BJ! Excellent synthesis and needed recommendation!

  • TheMightyQ

    Great, great article.

  • J C Harvey, Jr ADM, USN (Ret)

    BJ, I think a little bit of selective quoting is going on here on that helps you make the point you want to make regarding officer education, but it’s not the point I was making relative to the specific needs of the nuclear propulsion program and the unquestioned requirement for a broader education in the officer corps as a whole for the many and varied demands our Navy faces today as we engage in the world around us.
    Take a listen to the Midrats again from about 47:20 – 58:00. I think the view I expressed concerning the desired/required education for our officers/enlisted goes beyond what you’ve attributed to me here.
    All the best, John

  • James Bowen

    Excellent post. Perhaps this is beside the point of this post, but there is actually a surplus, not a shortage, of STEM talent in the U.S. where as the job market is concerned. Those who say there is a shortage have self-interested reasons for doing so.

  • PSWallace

    You need both. They are Sun Tzu’s normal and extraordinary forces–switching off, one time one, another time the other.

    Having started off life wishing to be a history major, I consider engineering to be better for building analytical skills (sorry, liberal arts majors). Having said that, it is a lot easier to read a history book after a long day than an engineering one, plus I feel myself a more complete man when delving into the humanities.

    Perhaps a naval officer does not need an engineering degree to the same level of detail someone intending to be an engineer does–and I have three such parchments, and so have gone into major overkill on certain subjects, related to what a typical line officer needs. Flight school, after all, is not an aerospace engineering course. What forces someone to take a full spectrum of engineering courses is not necessarily the needs of the service, but ABET and desire to not circumscribe graduates post-naval careers.

    To me the key is the “it is a lot easier to read a history book after a long day than an engineering one”. What will cause that to happen is if the naval culture demands it. If we train you as an engineer and then demand you know warfare fully, you will have no chance of doing so unless you read–history, and the humanities. The first to develop your coup d’oeil of the situation, and the second to develop your coup d’oeil of the heart.

    • PSWallace

      One caveat on the humanities–history is actual real life, humanities, and especially literature, are just attempts to reflect upon that life. They are not real life itself. In “The Natural”, if Roy Hobbs hits the final homerun, it’s a neat popcorn movie–but it takes him striking out to make it Malamud’s book “literature”, vice a pulp novel.

      The problem being that on any given day, I have it on good authority that about half the teams in baseball actually win. Thus, if one believes the human condition is unalterably nasty, brutish, and short, with doom the inevitable fate, one may find a lot of support in literature, but one is at odds with the fundamental premise of the American Experiment–because we don’t believe in the no-win scenario. Use literature as a guide, but not as a prophecy.

      Finally, I meant to put in my above–thanks to TV and movies, you can get a lot of good (and bad) humanities edumacation visually, which is a nice timesaver.

  • Merlin Dorfman

    “We need both. We need engineers to provide technical expertise and their particular way of approaching problems and we also need a balance of line officers who have studied humans and human interaction, who have studied the humanities.”
    Is it assumed that these would be two separate people or groups? Not the right solution, in my opinion! (I’m not a fan of the EDO.)

  • Andy

    The issues of STEM versus a broader educational construct as a prerequisite goes across the board. I have closely observed the medical profession for several decades now and note that with fair uniformity most doctors make utterly horrible and even toxic leaders. So much so, that those in one of the great apexes of STEM who do make great leaders are remembered many years after they leave their positions of leadership.

    The Sea Services however can, if the recipient has an open mind, be a fantastic learning and teaching opportunity to those who are open to the opportunity to learn STEM in their training pipelines (as did I) or to be open to discussions and learning by example from non-STEM-origin leaders. The open ear is receptive to the well-spoken tongue, as it were. But both sides need to be able to both transmit and to receive.

  • Sperrwaffe

    Great Post!
    I can approve the balanced approach you are promoting. My study of history after I had received my CO qualification very much broadened my way of thinking. Luckily it was for me to choose what to study. And it supported my experiences gained before during my time in the fleet.
    There is a place for every discipline. If you are unbiased and looking for more than just a tick in the box. And of course some are mandatory for certain careers. But with regard to leadership there is much more which is mandatory, as you point out very well.
    And with regard to “a place for every discipline”. My CEO said to me “I recruited you because you are not an engineer. I need your disruptive thinking and your way of thinking which challenges my engineers.”
    And btw thank you for mentioning O’Brian. I digested all of his books in record time. Have to do that again…

  • LT B

    I often think that we tend to get wrapped around the axle with regards to this question. How much engineering is actually going on in the Fleet? The merchies are way better shipboard engineers then say your Academy guy because their school is far more vocational.

    I would argue that language, and really solid warfare historians would be awfully important wrt to planning. I think of Gen Mattis in this regard. I do not think that to STEM or not to STEM is the question. Regardless of the major, to be a warfighter, you should, have instilled in your core, the love of learning, and critical thinking. As one gets more senior though, one will get pulled further into policy decisions, and less into STEM development and implementation. I do believe the author is correct in that the tribalism needs to stop.